Gay Times February 12 - Issue 402
A certain irony pervades my interview with Peter Tatchell. He may be one of the world’s most successful campaigners of gay and human rights.
More from Gay Times February 12 - Issue 402
His accomplishments may dwarf those of almost all who stand before him. I may be sat in his home, drinking his tea, eating his biscuits… And yet regardless of all this, of the two of us, he’s more nervous.
Looking dapper if slightly ill at ease in the collar and tie he’s worn specially for our meeting (I suspect), he recoils bashfully at every compliment I pay him. This is classic Peter. He’s saved lives, is an inspiration to us all – but he hardly knows it. It’s my favourite thing about him.
“Most days when I go out people stop me and wish me well and I go red with embarrassment!” he smiles. His speech is coloured by soft, friendly flashes of an Australian accent – he moved to the UK in 1971. “I think ‘who am I? What have I done?’ I’m just one of millions.” I can’t help but laugh.
There is something very unassuming about this man, though. For example, his South London council flat is modest to say the least. He rejects materialism and consumerism and so, rather than possessions, fills his home with relics that lay bare his tireless career. There are photographs, flyers and placards all over the walls, including some I recognise: those emblazoned with the faces of the famous homophobes, complete with drawn on red lipstick and blue eye shadow. My favourite is of the Pope with the words ‘POPE ‘BETTY’ BENEDICT XVI, QUEEN OF HOMOPHOBIA’ written on it. They’re all symbolic of his wider political approach: brash, risky, attention grabbing. This couldn’t be further from the personality of the man sitting opposite me.
“The irony is, in my private life, I’m not extroverted at all,” he agrees. “I’m quite shy and like my anonymity. But when it comes to fighting for a just cause I’ll do anything. Whatever is necessary.”
Of the mountain of books on which I rest my teacup, half are biographies of the people who inspire him – Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Pankhurst. “All these people, in different ways, challenged justice,” he says cheerily, but with a certain authority. Paired with his razor sharp intelligence, he puts me in mind of a cool schoolteacher, the kind whose words stay with you your whole life. “[They each] evolved new ways of doing human rights campaigning. What I’ve tried to do is adapt some of their methods, and of course, invent a few of my own.” There’s more scope for comparison than that, I suggest. “I don’t think I’m in that league,” he firmly replies.
That’s debatable. On the 25 January 2012, Peter turns 60. This year also marks 10 years of his human rights organisation The Peter Tatchell Foundation. Not to mention his forty-fifth year of wider activism, on everything from gay rights to green issues to animal testing to the Iraq War. If he’s not considered a legend already, he soon will be. “I anticipate at least another 30 years of human rights campaigning,” he says defiantly. “To me, retirement would be boring. My grandfather lived to 97 and was active until the last three or four years. Hopefully I have his genes. Someone once described me as the Duracell campaigner. ‘He just goes on and on and on!’”
But what drives him? It’s a question I’ll ask repeatedly over the course of the interview, never quite satisfied with the answer.
“The positive feedback from the many individuals I help is a tremendous motivator,” he replies. “As are the successes of many of the campaigns. I’ve personally helped over 100 LGBT refugees win asylum. Many of them were on the verge of deportation when I stepped in. They risked being sent back to countries where they were likely to be imprisoned, tortured and even killed. To me it’s been a tremendous honour and privilege to work with them. I develop a personal relationship with these individuals. They become my friends. I have an incredible, personal passion to help them win their cases.”
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